On the Topic of a Parliamentary System

First of all, I find the question of whether a Parliamentary System is more or less democratic than a Presidential System confusing.  The level of democracy in each respective system is dependant on the state that employs the system, and what unique additions they add to the system.  For example the United States has added an Electoral College, and a federal system of governance to their Presidential System.  The United Kingdom has the House of Lords whose membership is traditionally based on heredity, and an election cycle that can be postponed.  Therefore, to answer the question sufficiently, it is necessary to first compare the two systems as theories, and then look at them as they have been applied to actual states and judge their level of democracy from there.

Both the Presidential System, and the Parliamentary System, in theory, allow free, fair and competitive votes, effectively meeting Shumpeter’s definition of democracy.  The most prevalent difference between these two systems of governance is the executive.  In a Presidential System, the executive is independent of the legislature, and the judiciary, while in a Parliamentary System, the executive, and legislature are closely related.  The level of autonomy of the executive in each system has its benefits and downfalls.  In the Presidential System, the executive is subject to checks and balances that regulate how much power the President, and the executive branch as a whole, may have.  This may, however, result in a division of power between two or more political parties leading to gridlock within the state, and a halt and progress within the government.  In a Parliamentary System, the problem of partisan gridlock is remedied because, with the exception of the United Kingdom and its coalition government, the executive and the legislature belong to the same party.  This is because in a Parliamentary System, the leader of the winning party in an election is chosen to become the executive.  A majority party always ruling the legislature and the executive results in a tyranny of the majority.

When these two systems are applied to actual states one can see which one better supports democracy.  Both the United States and the United Kingdom easily satisfy Dahl’s definition of democracy, which means to see which system is better for democracy, a more rigorous definition must be used; this means either Karl and Schmitter’s definition, which is similar to Dahl’s, except it adds accountability, or Barber’s definition, which focuses on overall outcomes.  Being that neither one of these states can come close to satisfying Barber’s definition, Karl and Schmitter’s definition would be the most ideal.  According to Karl and Schmitter’s definition, the United Kingdom and the Parliamentary System would be more democratic because the executive is more accountable.  In the United Kingdom the executive is completely dependant on the legislature, and the legislature is completely dependant on the preference of the people.  Furthermore, under the United Kingdom, a vote of no confidence can be called at anytime to determine if the Prime Minister is still fit to lead; however this rarely happens.  In the United States, the President is not dependant on the legislature, is dependant on the preference of the people to the point where he can gain the majority of the electorate.  There are regulations to limit his power, but it can be argued with the existence of executive orders that these checks and balances are inefficient.

Barber’s definition incredibly rigorous and very few countries in the world meet them, the United States, and the United Kingdom are not among them, however, if one of these two states was to fit Barber’s definition better than the other, it would be the United States and the Presidential System.  Barber focuses on public good, outcomes, and equality.  In terms of public good, neither country emphasizes it better than the other, but any country who claims to be a democracy would generally promote public good, thus this would not be a deciding factor.  In terms of outcomes, the United States and the U.K. aren’t necessarily different either.  Yes, the U.K. has the NHS and it is a great program, but it is hilariously underfunded.  The Affordable Care Act isn’t a perfect program either, but its a start for the United States and has enrolled millions of citizens, providing them with low cost health care.  The one area where the United States definitively pulls away from the U.K. is equality; any form of equality.  No one would argue that the United States is a model for equality.  There is still a long way to go before anyone would consider the U.S. equal, but the U.S. is more equal, in almost every aspect, than the U.K.  The U.K. has a widening income gap between men and women, a Parliament that only has 27 ethnic minorities out of 1440 total members.  The U.S. boasts better numbers than this with a Congress about a third of the size: 104 women in Congress and 96 racial minorities.

Kesselman, Mark, Joel Krieger, and William A. Joeseph. “Britain.” Introduction to Comparative Politics. Seventh ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2014. 55-72. Print.

“New Congress Includes More Women, Minorities.” New York Times. New York Times, 4 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.


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